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~Free and worth exactly what I paid~
A couple of months ago I discovered that membership of the Amazon 'Prime' scheme entitles Kindle owners to use the 'Kindle Owners' Lending Library'. This means that anyone who pays for the fast delivery scheme called Amazon Prime can borrow a Kindle book once a month. It's not so easy to find titles you want to read but I often come across books I'm interested in but not enough to want to pay money to own them. One such book which I borrowed in January was 'I Come Alone - A Lone Woman's Travel Adventures in Thailand and India' by Michelle J Coote. Sometimes I feel quite sad about giving back one of my 'loan' ebooks but I've only been hanging on to this one long enough to write the review. I'll be returning it happily without any thoughts that maybe I should buy it and keep it to read again.
I've been to Thailand several times and I don't much like the place but I love India and I'm willing to read pretty much anything about people's experiences of the country. There are unsurprisingly some additional challenges for people who travel in these countries on their own and I was interested to learn how the author got along on her journey.
~Men go out and buy Harley Davidsons~
Michelle J Coote was having what could be characterised as a 'mid-life crisis'. Like many Australians she was well travelled and her travels had led her to evaluate her life and ask herself why she was working in a job she didn't enjoy to pay for a house and possessions she didn't need. Returning from a trip to the Middle East she came home to what felt like an 'alien' country. She didn't seem to really have many friends or particularly close family. She asks us "Where were my family and friends.....when I needed them the most?" and then admits one of her sisters had terminal cancer but "Even so, neither she nor my other sister had had much to do with me in recent years". What can I say except 'how selfish is that?' and I'm not referring to the terminally ill sister. At least she recognises that her friends had deserted her because of her "seriously awful mood". Some people travel alone because they like the flexibility but maybe some travel that way because nobody would want to travel with them.
Coote sold her house and most of her belongings to finance travel to Thailand and India and 'I Come Alone' is her account of what happened. I'm not like Michelle - I love to travel but I also love to come home again. The idea of cutting all your ties and burning your bridges doesn't appeal to me but then I don't hate my job and I've not driven away my family and friends by being miserable. I don't want to run away from an unsatisfying life. Despite that, I could understand her situation and I was admiring of the sacrifices she was willing to make in order to follow her dream. I wanted to see where she went and what she did. I was very open and willing to be impressed by what was to follow but mostly I ended up fairly bored and often very irritated by 'I Come Alone'.
~Moan, moan, moan~
For an experienced traveller, Coote does some strange things. She moans that the airport security confiscated her weights (presumably for exercise) and her cigarette lighter. WHY would anyone take weights on their travels? She moans about the trouble of finding a decent cup of tea, and she makes some distinctly off-colour comments about the locals in some of the places she visits. Once she gets to India to travel with a friend and his daughter, she hates the dirt and the poverty and revels in staying in four star hotels and eating big breakfasts and drinking lots of alcohol whilst avoiding too much contact with the real India 'I Come Alone'? Not for much of your Indian travel, you didn't.
She starts in Thailand with a few weeks in Phuket meeting lady-boys, deploring the sex tourism and moaning about the cost of a Starbucks cup of tea before heading on to Bangkok. Predictably she hangs out around the Khao San Road with fellow tourists, rather missing the point of travelling - surely it's not to go and meet more Australians, drink powerful cocktails and go in search of girls who can do astonishing things with ping pong balls. She heads to Laos to renew her visa reflecting that "when travelling in foreign countries, it is the lack of local information that gives the local people a way to try and take advantage of your ignorance and make some money in the process". We've all met people with their Lonely Planet guides who think that the guide is gospel and everyone else is lying to them. Maybe sometimes that's true but it's one of the early indications that Coote is a traveller who lives in fear of the 'rip off', who expects every brown faced stranger to be sizing her up for what they can get out of her. I find that very sad. When a turbaned man tries to do a 'mind reading' act on her she wonders if he's such a great mind reader how come he can't read her mind when she's thinking "You're not going to get any money out of me you rotten scammer". My impression was that she was actually infinitely scam-able but only by pretty young men who flattered her and made a fuss.
~When she's not moaning she's judging~
She professes to be very open-minded and then gets upset when two men - tourists not locals - start kissing in a bar. It's apparently OK to watch women dancing in bars and performing bizarre acts but she warns the men that they'd get beaten up if they kissed in an Australian bar. She is shockingly moralistic about people she meets. A 78 year old gay man who is having a relationship with a 15 year old local boy is "wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong and very wrong". I think you get the point. Maybe she should think about what treatment that boy might be getting from local men if he weren't hanging out with a wealthy foreigner. It's like people who condemn western European men for marrying Eastern European women without thinking about what the alternatives back home might be. Now I'm not saying it's right for the 78 year old to be with a young boy - far from it - but I don't think any traveller can adopt quite such a moral high-ground when they were happily hanging out in Thailand where the prostitutes outnumber the clients two to one and many of the girls are underage and not condemning anyone there. She looks down on a Canadian couple who are staying in backpacker hostels as if she's somehow better than them because she has more money. She condemns 'the Indians' over throwing their rubbish around without realising that one man's rubbish is another man's recycling income. She even condemns Indian (i.e. Hindu) temples for being "so gaudy"
I stuck with the book through the Thailand chapters because I was looking forward to her India experience. Landing in Mumbai she meets up with an old friend Dave and his daughter and they travel together for several weeks. Dave turns out to be the kind of guy I'd check out of a hotel to keep away from and he exhibits some of the worst tendencies of the Aussie abroad - the obsession that everyone's out to rip him off, that nobody should be allowed to get away with anything, and that everything in India is a bit rubbish. I'd have not lasted more than 30 minutes without smacking him around the head. Dave can't deal with people and India is full of people. When people want to carry his bags he screams "What's the matter with you people" at the top of his voice and then "WILL YOU JUST F***OFF! F***OFF!" I cringed and thanked God I don't come across people like him too often. After a fight that led him to curse a taxi driver and all his living relatives over 50 rupees (about 70 pence) I was astonished to learn that this was Dave's THIRD trip to India and he still had no idea how to behave.
~Falling in Love with India? Really?~
Coote tells us that India taught her that "the human race has not advanced at all. We are all still Barbarians". Similarly she dismisses 99% of Indian men as being unattractive, considers that every man in the street is looking at her like they want to have sex with her and generally has an attitude to a nation of over 1 billion people that makes you wonder how she could possibly announce later in the book that she loves the country. She's incredibly rude about a massage she gets in Kochi. Now I've had Ayurvedic massage in Kerala and I found it rather unsettling but I never for a moment thought about accusing the masseuse of making a 'lewd lesbian porno film'. Not only does she think all the men desire her but now she's imagining the women can't resist her either. People do stare at you in India - it's just normal. But they're looking at you and thinking "Goodness me, I've not seen anyone before dressed in those odd clothes in a funny hat behaving in a very foreign way" rather than planning how to lure you down a dark alley and have their wicked way with you. People look at you as if a giraffe in pyjamas was walking down the High Street in Basingstoke. You'd look, you'd stare - in some places that's how rare a tourist is.
Lots of places are dismissed as not being interesting "Nothing of interest happened and we didn't meet anyone of interest either" she says after staying in Goa. She's horribly rude about the food which she dismisses as 'muck' but she does make some interesting observations about how long it takes to get money in a bank and how many people get involved in such a transaction. The three Australians go to Trivandrum where they stay in the best hotel in the city and it still didn't "satisfy my expectations of quality" and they spent most of their time in the hotel bar drinking cocktails.
Just over half way through the book, Coote tells us that the two months she spent in India on her own were filled with "constant harassment and constant fear of death of injury" but she fell in love with India. I'm amazed she didn't get on the first plane out and head home as there was no sign of that love in the book.
Do I need to tell you that I hated this? I wanted to like it and I was impressed that someone would give up their whole life and all their material possessions to go to a country I love but not so impressed that all they wanted to do when they got there was drink cocktails, stay in fancy hotels and be rude to and about the people and places they saw. I tried so hard to stick to analysing the content and not judging the writer but I just couldn't do that. I was so offended by Coote's attitude to the country I love, to the inconsistencies in her attitude and to her heavy handed and judgemental approach that I can't wait to ping this e-book back to the Kindle Owner's Lending Library and pick something new. There are a few insightful gems of wisdom in 'I Come Alone' but they are few and far between and you'll have to wade through a lot of 'mush' to find them.